You could feel it in the stands when Byron Buxton hit a walk-off home run on Sunday afternoon. The Minnesota Twins had completed a three-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox. It was their fourth straight win after losing eight of their first 12 games. The adrenaline was pumping when Rocco Baldelli arrived for his post-game interview session.
When the conversation turned to Buxton, Baldelli’s eyes lit up the same way that Buxton’s did on that Liam Hendriks fastball.
“You know we talk about all these adjectives and say he’s elite and changes the game,” Baldelli said. “Right now, there’s no better player in the world than him. I think he’s absolutely the best player in the world when he’s out there doing his thing. You’re talking about a guy that’s just demolishing the baseball every day when he shows up and is one of the top handful of defenders in the world as well.”
Baldelli’s comments have merit. Though the first three years of his tenure, Baldelli sounded like an extension of the front office. When it came time to complement Buxton, he gushed about his potential.
Best player in the division? Sure. Best player in the American League? Maybe. Best player in the world? What have you done with Rocco?
But Buxton has been one of the best players in baseball since 2019. His .596 slugging percentage ranks second behind Mike Trout (.634), and his .922 OPS in that span ranks ninth. His 25 outs above average rank fifth among center fielders and 15th overall.
A player with that kind of resume should be considered a superstar – and that’s exactly what he’s become for the Twins. ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted on Monday that the Twins have a 124-73 record when Buxton plays, dating back to the 2019 season. When he doesn’t, the Twins have a 94-109 record.
Any Twins fan can tell you that they are a better team when Buxton is on the field. Buxton knows this and foreshadowed Baldelli’s comments in a December 2021 interview with WCCO’s Chad Hartman. Working in a cage with former hitting coach James Rowson during the 2017 season, Buxton recalled the moment he became the player he is today.
“It was one of those things where he told me each and every day, ‘You’re the best player.’” Buxton said. “I had to mentally prepare myself each and every day like ‘You know what? I am the best player.’ Once my mindset shifted to [that], the other stuff didn’t matter.”
That has come to fruition over the past three seasons. Since 2019, Buxton has tallied 10.6 wins above replacement. That number is 26th among all major league batters despite logging just 668 at-bats. No player with a higher WAR has done it in fewer at-bats than Buxton, and Trout is the only player ahead of him to do it in less than 1,000 at-bats.
That puts Trout and Buxton in the same class. While Trout has three MVP Awards, he has also had the same amount of injury misfortune. Trout missed 19 games during the 2019 season due to a foot injury. He played in 53 games during the COVID-shortened season in 2020. Last year, he played in just 36 games due to a calf injury.
Meanwhile, Buxton missed 75 games in 2019 due to a bruised wrist, a concussion, and season-ending shoulder surgery. He missed 21 games in 2020 due to a foot sprain and another concussion. In 2021, he missed 101 games due to a strained hamstring, hip, and broken hand.
Buxton’s injury history has driven Twins fans insane. However, through it all, Buxton has put up comparable numbers to another player considered the best in the world.
Buxton and Trout aren’t alone. Several stars have suffered injuries over the past couple of seasons. None of them have taken the same sting as Buxton has.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is currently on the injured list after fracturing his wrist in a motorcycle accident. Ronald Acuña is rehabbing from a torn ACL. Shohei Ohtani had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2018.
For these players, the injuries were viewed as a freak accident. For Buxton, it was a reason some Twins fans wanted to trade him away.
Thankfully, the Twins made the right decision. By signing Buxton to a seven-year contract extension, Minnesota can reap the benefits on the field. While he has only played in 10 games this season, he has already validated Baldelli’s claim. More importantly, Buxton doesn’t need Baldelli to confirm what he already knows.